Tag Archives: lily james

“Darkest Hour” a vehicle for Gary Oldman’s performance

Actors who transform themselves into historical figures win Oscars. If it’s a famous Brit, all the better. If it’s a famous Brit who battles Nazis, you’re practically a shoo-in. It might not even matter whether the movie is good or not. Add some lush cinematography and a rabble-rousing plot and you can start working on your acceptance speech.

“Darkest Hour” tells the story of the fateful month of May 1940 in the life of newly-minted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). With the Nazi forces having driven the British army to the seas of France in Dunkirk and the Western powers falling around them, efforts in Parliament are underway to attempt peace talks with Hitler. Churchill, knowing this to be a foolish and likely fatal endeavor, must fight to stay strong and continue the war even with such a bleak outlook.

The film is pretty much a vehicle for Oldman’s performance. It’s pretty obvious where the story is going, with the film setting up the unease over Churchill’s ascension, the backstabbing behind him and the threat of annihilation barreling towards Britain. Cue the deep introspective, the theme of nationalism over individual plight, the rousing speech at the end. It’s all very textbook.

This is not to say that “Darkest Hour” is a poor film. It’s a fine film. It hits all of its beats very well, all of the ones you’ve seen before. It’s purpose isn’t to tell an original story that might move you. It’s to display craftsmanship and win Academy Awards.

This is also not to take away from Gary Oldman’s performance. He really is fantastic in the lead role and probably deserves his Oscar. The entire movie is simply a driving force to showcase his acting ability and transformation into Churchill and in so doing, win accolades.

Those who go into “Darkest Hour” know exactly what they’re getting: a period piece that emphasizes strong acting and a forgettable plot. They just shouldn’t expect anything more.

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‘Baby Driver’ a dynamic thrill ride

After Edgar Wright’s infamous leaving of Marvel’s “Ant-Man” project, the anticipation for his next film has grown exponentially. And with “Baby Driver”, his fans are treated to a high-adrenaline, nostalgic, soundtrack-driven thrill ride.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a kid conned into working for a crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), as his driver on heist jobs. Using iPod music to navigate his life, he becomes smitten with a waitress, Debora (Lily James). He has to protect her as some of the crazies from his crime life such as Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Elza Gonzalez) and Buddy (Jon Hamm) question his loyalty.

The film is dynamic, utilizing all the tenets of good filmmaking (editing, score, cinematography, writing, shot design, sound) to tell an engaging, if not completely original, story. While the soundtrack-as-plot-driver is a little contrived, it is handled well enough that it is not too annoying. The action chase scenes are pulse-pounding and a lot of fun, the film using sound, editing and camera work to build up action rather than CGI bologna and explosions.

The film’s biggest problem is that it’s characters are not too original, more representative rather than three-dimensional. The love story between Debora and Baby is a little forced and bland, not given the opportunity to be fleshed out while psychos like Bats are rather one-note. While not a huge detriment, it keeps the film from being character-centered engaging.

Edgar Wright has always specialized in creating homage to an earlier era and here he incorporates 1950s idealism with 1980s car chases and millennial music obsession. It’s a fun ride if not perfect.

‘Cinderella’ pretty but a snore

Disney’s latest entry of Cinderella closely follows the familiar tale. A young girl named Ella (Lily James) becomes orphaned and is forced to live with her uncaring stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) while dreaming for Prince Charming (Richard Madden). Her only chance at hope comes in the form of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter).

Director Kenneth Branagh, a strange choice to helm such a project considering his previous directorial efforts (Thor, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hamlet to name a few), does not excel nor fail in directing. There does not seem to be much flair to really make the film stand out. Shots are static (except for the ball scenes) and the editing is rather bland. On top of this, some of the CGI effects look downright porous which is peculiar with Disney’s acumen.

What the film lacks in style it makes up for in lavishness. Sets are intricately designed and costumes gorgeously rendered. There are so many glowing lights and absorbing cinematography that the film is visually memorable, but narratively dull.

Overall, the film goes by rather quickly, hitting each familiar story beat calmly and without great emotional involvement. Blanchett, though perhaps miscast for being a bit too pretty for an evil stepmother, shines in a cast that does not pose a lackluster performance. Lily James contains just the right amount of bubbly energy and wanton desire, though she does seem a bit old for the role. Helena Bonham Carter provides a few laughs as the Fairy Godmother in a film sorely lacking in humor. Richard Madden as Prince Charming is, well, exactly as you’d expect him to be.

The problem with making fairy tale films with live actors however has always been the translation from simple stories into 90-minute long features. There’s just not a lot of depth and internal conflict for the characters to go through. The problem of one-note characters (the stepmother is evil, Cinderella is innocent and good) leaves the film emotionally uninteresting. Cinderella is almost too good for us to empathize with and the Stepmother is too evil for us to do so as well. Without a personal stake, Cinderella is all icing, but no cake. Some sort of internal dilemma would have greatly helped the story.

This is not to say Cinderella is a bad film. It is reasonably entertaining and sweet. But the greatest fault with the project lies in why it was even made. Do audiences really need another Cinderella movie? The film tells the exact same story exactly as we have seen it before. It does not present us with anything new or offer a different take as last year’s Maleficent (2014) did by telling a story from the villain’s point-of-view (though in fairness that is borrowed from Broadway’s Wicked) and offering a different interpretation of the story’s themes by changing the ending. Cinderella is nothing new and could have been so much more.

Just for ideas, why not a tale of Cinderella’s two stepsisters and how they look upon the world? Or a conflicted evil stepmother who must grapple with personal love, love of her children and perplexing hatred for this new stepdaughter? Or even a Cinderella-focused narrative that takes place in a different location, say India, or a different time period such as the the depression? Just something different or an interesting take would have added something to a story that we have seen over and over again.